One of the more rewarding aspects of holding a statewide office is to visit schools across the state, especially to high schools where students are nearing the end of their 13-year incubation period as young scholars, ready to fly out of the classroom and land in college, the military or directly in the workplace.
And one of the most frustrating aspects of being in our positions is seeing a few of these students, so close to a place where they chase their dreams, have their lives crash short due to something so easily prevented: the use and abuse of alcohol.
From our capital city of Olympia we have easy access to the tragic numbers collected and categorized by the State Patrol, DSHS, Traffic Safety Commission and others.
So as we enter graduation season and the summer months that follow, now is the perfect time to remind youth that there are far better ways to celebrate your life than to risk destroying it by getting drunk.
We urge parents, teachers, mentors, youth leaders and law enforcement to reach out to teens at every opportunity to show youth how much you care about this issue as well.
Every year around this time the news is full of preventable, alcohol-related tragedies, from fatal car crashes to stupid, alcohol-induced stunts that send our kids to the emergency room. Too often we hear stories of families who should be enjoying some of the best times of their lives suddenly facing the worst because of a careless act of irresponsible drinking.
There is a recent and tragic example that especially hits home. In February two 17-year-olds died near Soap Lake in Grant County as the result of an accident after their car left the road at high speed and hit a culvert. Authorities believe alcohol was a factor.
State statistics tell us that most deaths to young drivers occur in July and August, when youth are driving more so risk exposure is at the highest.
We know that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for young people. Every day, car crashes kill more young people than cancer, unintentional poisoning, homicide and suicide combined.
We also know that those who start drinking as a teen are more likely to become alcoholics as adults, teens who drink are more likely to get in trouble with the law, get booted off sports teams, get suspended or expelled from school, experiment with other illegal substances and the list goes on.
Despite these examples, our community attitudes toward youth drinking remain somewhat passive as though drinking is some kind of rite-of-passage, when it’s really more a rite-of-failure.
More often than not it is parents who host teen drinking parties, figuring it is better to have the kids within sight than off at a keg party in the woods. This is not only a bad idea — it could be costly: Washington’s social hosting law carries a penalty of up to $5,000 per violation.
The good news is that the number of teens who drink in Washington is going down.
The 2010 Washington Healthy Youth Survey reported a decrease overall in alcohol use, with more kids saying their parents talk to them about not drinking alcohol. We have an active Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking, comprised of state agency and community partners, that is taking the lead by publishing materials and web sites where parents can learn the rules and, especially important, how to talk to their kids. StartTalkingNow.org and LetsDrawtheLine.org are two web sites with plenty of resources.
What’s even more encouraging is to see schools and communities across the state take part by signing commitment cards and hosting events that say, with loud fervor, that they are taking a stand against underage drinking.
The momentum is building and we are seeing results. As state elected officials, we urge you to get on board with these efforts to keep our kids safe, healthy and sober.
Brad Owen is serving his fourth term as lieutenant governor of Washington. Rob McKenna is serving his second term as attorney general of Washington. Both are members of the Washington Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking.